Books Reviews

Mosaics of Alexandria

The gorgeous arts of Rhakotis.

If you were asked to name the ultimate masterpiece of Greek or Roman art you would be hard placed to answer better than the dog mosaic found during the building of the new Library of Alexandria. 

The dog looks out at the viewer with an expression of such feigned sorrow. Standing next to a jug, which he has overturned, looking for treats.

The realism is astonishing. The fine graduations in the color of fur. His nose glistens, ears erect, tail caught mid-wag, muscles clenched. The dog is about to jump and bark excitedly at his owner. He knows he cannot keep the facade of innocence much longer. 

Each generation has its own particular artwork which it feels symbolizes all that is best of the ancient world. The Eighteenth century loved the Apollo Belvedere. The Twentieth Century, the Venus de Milo. Connoisseurs of the Twenty First century, I think, find in this mosaic an emotional depth and a relatable truth.

But it is more than that. This is a work of art which creates in its audience an image of themselves as they would like to be: loved and loving, lighthearted and laughing, at one with the world.

Cat and bird mosaic CC BY-SA 3.0 by Sailko.

In her new book Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets analyses mosaics originating in Alexandria. The ancient city was an important workshop and market for luxury goods. Scholars have long argued that many mosaics and other objets d’art originated here.  Yet until salvage archaeology in the twentieth century there was little proof of mosaics within the city of their origin.

The earliest mosaic found in Alexandria dates from 315 – 300 BCE. It is a simple and effective design for the andron (or dining room). It follows the standard model for a seven-bed banqueting suite with a rosette in the middle forming a focus point. The entrance space is identified with an impressive geometric pattern just off center. The other spaces around the walls would have been filled with the dining couches. This model is repeated in other extant mosaics.

Certain designs were popular. The Gorgon, looking to the side, never meeting the viewer’s eyes was always popular. Abstract geometric patterns.  

Animals were another favorite. One mosaic showing a mythical hunt scene is decorated with realistic African animals- leopards, lions, warthogs, hyenas. Egyptian artists had depicted animals for millenia. Another influence on the ostensibly scholarly milieu of Alexandria was possibly Aristotelian zoology.

Although no mosaics with fish scenes have been found in Alexandria, these were popular across the Mediterranean and possibly originate in the Egyptian city. Images showing battles between lobsters, squids and eels may be based on Aristotle who claimed the octopus could defeat the lobster, the conger eel the octopus and the lobster the eel. The theme was developed by Aelian who wrote of these endless battles: “Enmity and inborn hate are a truly terrible affliction and a cruel disease when once they have sunk deep into the heart even of brute beasts, and nothing can purge them away” (1.32). 

The sensation of looking at these wonderful images, while enjoying a fish supper in refined company and discussing Aristotelian philosophy can only be imagined. 

Birds remained popular into Late Antiquity. One image from Kom Truga in Egypt shows three birds identified as a rooster, a quail and a partridge. They resemble Thomas Bewick’s best engravings with an almost psychological depiction of gesture and movement. A particularly gorgeous mosaic found in Rhodes shows a partridge feeding its chicks (dated second to mid-first century BCE). It was possibly made by an Alexandria craftsperson or someone trained by an Alexandrian. 

The great Nile Mosaic of Palestrina (found in Palestrina, Italy) is another example of this interest in animals. It shows the river Nile in flood. A truly epic mosaic which from afar looks like chinoiserie wallpaper, but at closer inspection reveals itself as a fully realized landscape. The top half depicts a natural landscape of wild animals, carefully identified with Greek names. The bottom half depicts Egyptian-style buildings and people. 

Berenice II as Isis or Aphrodite

There are many mosaics in Pompeii which may have come from Alexandria including scenes of the Nile Valley or of animals. Their appeal is easy to understand, but we can underestimate the costs of such items. 

Mosaics were likely built in ‘workshops’: specialized teams under a master who traveled to places of work.

We do not know much about these craftspeople outside of the work. The Prices Edict of Diocletian of 301 CE which set prices and wages across the Empire allowed the musaerius higher wages than the tessellarius. Ten mosaics have signatures but we do not always know if the name belongs to the mosaicist or the original painter of the image.

There were different styles and quality of finish. Opus tessellatrum refers to elements 0.4 CM or bigger, and square and opus vermiculatum to elements smaller than 0.4 CM and often specifically shaped for the design. Styles were defined by skill, cost and fashions. Early mosaics were created using four colors (tetrachromy): the  white, yellow, red and black used by the great artists Apelles, Aetion, Melanthios and Nikomachos and thence through Poussin to the modern day. 

The theme could also be suggested by the mosaic’s location. Dolphins would suit a bathhouse, feasts a dining room. Mosaics were designed to work in rooms filled with furniture and people. Floor space which would be obscured were given only a perfunctory decoration.  

One unique text from the Zenon archive, contains the description of a bathhouse in the Fayum which was to be decorated with a band of seashells or waves following the model of the palace.

Tastes changed over the years but the influence of royal patronage was important. Through copies, we have access to mosaics that were commissioned by Royal courts. Two mosaics from Thmusis depict a Ptolemaic queen, an apotheosis of a maritime goddess perhaps Aphrodite or Isis Pelagia. On her head, a ship covered in protective symbols and rather allusively – St Elmo’s Fire. The mosaic is surely from the period when Ptolemies were expanding their navies and aggressively pursuing foreign policy. 

A more famous mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii shows the Battle of Issus, when Alexander defeated the Persian Emperor Darius III. It shows the decisive moment as Darius turns and flees from the young Macedonian king. A lot could be written about this work, but it suffices to say that it was likely based on a painting commissioned by one of the new Royal palaces belonging to the successors of Alexander. 

Why then was this painting so carefully and beautifully recreated in Pompeii? The answer eludes us but it says something to social competition and a sheer love of beautiful things. 

One of the unanswered questions of ancient art is why were mosaics never copied to the same degree in the post-antique period. Why was there never a sustained revival of this art on the level of the painting or sculpture? Guimier-Sorbets ends the book by analyzing the contemporary Alexandrian mosaic revival, one that promises to start a trend as enduring and important as that from 2,000 years ago.

A gorgeous book designed to be read and enjoyed by different audiences, combining rigorous scholarship and exquisite imagery.

Mosaics of Alexandria: Pavements of Greek and Roman Egypt by Anne-Marie Guimier Sorbets

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics